A monk collecting alms . . . a daily sight in the streets of Phnom Penh
hnom Penh monks have provided plenty to talk about, from heroin trafficking and
murder to revelations of sexual activity that have become a favourite topic in the
local press . But as Chea Sotheacheath discovered, for the devout there are
more prosaic concerns than the occasional spectacular scandal.
Every morning saffron robed monks can be seen on their alms rounds -collecting temporal
nourishment for themselves while allowing the givers to aquire spiritual merit.
The practice dates back to Buddhism's beginnings in India. It is a solemn and important
It is also, say Buddhists in Cambodia, the first area to show publicly that some
monks do not take their vocation seriously.
Common accusations among people spoken to by the Post were that monks let their eyes
drift to look at women while receiving alms, that they wore sandals instead of going
barefoot, that they went begging in crowded markets, even where animals were being
killed, and that their deportment and attitude were slack.
There were also concerns about monks running enterprises such as selling "winning"
The concerns of the laity are shared by senior monks.
The Venerable Nguon Nget, Abbot of Wat Botum, said the public is becoming concerned
about standards in Buddhism and its future.
"A monk is not allowed to use flip-flops or things to be comfortable,"
Nguon Nget said.
"But the current monk is different from before," he said, adding that sometimes
"they use the Buddhist logo for making their own businesses."
Other senior monks are also concerned.
"Monks have to adjust their heart and body gently and concentrate on the Dhamma
while they are making their alms round," said the Venerable Samdech Las Lay,
one of Cambodia's most senior monks.
"If they look around [while on their alms round] they would see other different
things and those things would draw their attention away from Dhamma," he said.
However, one young monk who has just arrived from Siem Reap said that it was dangerous
not to be looking round while out collecting alms.
"If I don't look around carefully before I go, I would be hit and killed by
a vehicle," he said.
"The street is very ugly and there is a lot of broken glass; if I don't wear
flip-flops my feet would be hurt."
Las Lay said the young monk's comments were valid and he felt there was room to meld
developments in society with the ancient Buddhist rules, such as allowing monks to
use footwear for health reasons.
How far changing society should impinge on Buddhism is unclear, but one piece of
technology has tongues wagging.
"Look! The monk is speaking on the phone! The 'Barang' monk has a hand-phone,"
someone calls out at breakfast in a local restaurant as he spots a foreign monk with
a mobile phone.
His fellow diners turn to stare. Some laugh; others murmur "Loksang Aht La-or,"
- "Bad monk".
Prum Saran, 52, who runs a shop near Psar Chah selling wine made from medicinal herbs,
said he spends about 5000 riel a day giving alms.
He said he knew the monks were badly behaved and were not doing things in the right
way, but he still felt sorry for them and realized that they had expenses to cover.
Abbot Nguon Nget said the correct way for monks to collect alms is for them to go
out barefoot with their eyes focused about one meter ahead and downward.
They should not go through markets or restaurants, and should only approach the homes
of the faithful who wish to gain merit.
"That is the real Buddhist monk who correctly obeys the rule," Nguon Nget
There also appears to be an increasingly materialistic streak among some monks.
Gold sellers near Psar Kandal said they numbered monks among their customers, but
did not know where they were from.
However, there are also monks who have embraced Buddhism as part of a rejection of
Vira Avalokita, an American monk, said his understanding of collecting alms was that
there was a spiritual and practical benefit.
"My idea is that if the monks went to collect food, then we shared that food
with everyone else, there would be no anger."
He said he feeds about 10 Cambodian people from his alms collection.
"I collect food because it is my work."
He said he tried to link his collecting of alms with what he saw as his social responsibilities.
"I go [on my alms round]; then I see the social condition.
"... I went even through the political turmoil: I have been [to collect food]
near the Royal Palace when they were having the big demonstration.
"I go through and people break the line and I walked through."
"Because if we draw the line and criss-cross the lines of the zone of violence,
we crack the violence."
He said many Cambodian monks have used the monkhood as an opportunity for gaining
personal benefits like schooling or collecting money to be married.
"I came here to help re-establish a caring situation with Khmers, " Vira
Avalokita said. "The Khmer monk should be helping the people.
"Buddhists believe in social activism. We believe in going out there and giving
our life for the community.
"It is a different concept here: the concept that if you are going to be a monk
you sit and do nothing ... What has become the practice? Eating, sleeping and smoking."
"[Some monks] say it is too cold to go out; some others say they have to go
to school or they have to study; another says he is tired. Everybody has an excuse.
"I go. I walk down."
Vira Avalokita said he believed the "little boy" monks under 18 years should
be prohbited. And women should not be allowed to live in pagodas.
He said he realized many of the problems had arisen because Buddhism was stamped
on by the Khmer Rouge. With the re-establishment of the monastic life there is a
general lack of knowledge, which needs to be extended.
However, Vira said that despite a lack of knowledge there should not be violence
in pagodas and there needed to be more social action by monks..
"The way for the monk is to help the poor of the community."